In retrospect, it is clear that, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert Kennedy forged an opening for reasoned accommodation with both his own and an opposing interest group by making use of his personal insight and creativity. First, he separated himself from the general mindset of his own group in recognizing that the risk of nuclear war is both morally repugnant and pragmatically untenable. Then, he gained the support of the president for his creative understanding that, while bellicose threats preclude resolution of conflict, human outreach, as reflected in Khrushchev's first letter, can open doors to its achievement. In the end, that same understanding provided the basis for the agreement ultimately reached with the Soviets.
The Afghan War as "Us against Them"
To cite now a contemporary conflict, America's war against
the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and its small band of al Qaeda allies
offers another reminder of the tragic costs to both sides of what we have
called "meaningless" group
attachments and the "group-think" and "Us against Them" mentality that derive
from it. Our own reckless country
continues to waste the blood of its young people and tens of billions of
dollars it doesn't have, while the puritanical Taliban offer themselves up to
death in nihilistic abandon. The war of
course has also brought much collateral damage and death to innocent civilians,
creating among all Afghans a growing resentment of the foreign intruders and a
resolve to kick them out that does not bode well for any hoped-for Pax
Why does America continue to fight in a country where it is not wanted and where its continued presence can only strengthen civilian support for the Taliban fighters and increase their determination to prevail? There are sophisticated geopolitical reasons, of course. But underlying them, in my view, is a bureaucratic mindset rooted in the group-think of American foreign policy. In the case of the Afghan war, it projects onto the low-tech Taliban the stereotype of an evil "Other" that, largely on religious grounds, hopes to bring down a morally degenerate America by providing a safe haven in which extremist allies can organize to hit the U.S. with ever more deadly and damaging acts of terrorism. This stereotype ignores the fact that the Afghan Taliban, for all its ruthless suppression of individual freedoms at home, has never given any evidence that it hopes to replace liberal societies in other places with its own medieval conception of social order. The obvious basis of its enmity to America is that America has invaded its country and must be driven out. Moreover, America can hardly rationalize its continued devastation of Afghanistan with the claim that it is a necessary evil in the greater project of bringing freedom to the Afghan people. The truth is that repressive governance in Afghanistan is as vulnerable to the aspirations of the "Arab Spring" as that in any Arab state. There is little doubt that, without any outside intervention, the rule of the Taliban would in time be superseded by an indigenous system of modern democratic government.
Nevertheless, in looking at the Afghanistan war, it is clear that it is not only America that holds a distorted view of its adversary. The Taliban too are blinded by one-sided group-think. Its members are largely ordinary young men who, in their impoverished country, have had little chance to develop and apply their own creative talents in useful work. In joining the Taliban, they have sought a sense of social identity in the only way they could: through an attachment to fundamentalist religious belief and jihadist militancy. Ironically, like many Americans, the Taliban cling to "their guns and religion" to find meaning in life. We can be sure they will not be quick to see the merits of democratic rule and personal freedoms.
Given this reality, it may well be that America faces in Afghanistan an immovable object that will simply not bend to its own irresistible force. Perhaps its best way out of this dilemma is to reject its imperial course, and pursue instead a new foreign policy based on the same powers of insight and creativity with which every human individual is born. The mindset resulting from the use of these powers would soon see the world not only from the point of view of its own "national interest," but from the points of view of all other players on the world stage. America's once exclusive concern for its own economic and military dominance would be broadened to include a respect and appreciation -- perhaps even moral and economic support -- for the values and aspirations of all other nations, friendly or unfriendly.
With such a prospect in mind, I suggest that the first step America might take immediately to help Afghanistan would be to agree to negotiations with the Taliban on a future political arrangement in which it could play a constructive role. The talks would aim to create a constitutional role for the Islamic militia group in the Karzai government, in exchange for a date certain to end America's armed intervention.
The alternative course of continuing the war in a fight to the last Taliban can only further inflame the militancy of the insurgents, who are not only determined to kick the invaders out, but could, with increasing support from Afghan civilians, grow to such strength that they would no longer consider -- as many now do -- an accommodation with the present Afghan government. It would be starkly ironic if that were to happen. For, if the Taliban were once more to take charge of the central government, they might well seek to fully vindicate their understanding of Islamic purity by re-imposing their repressive behavioral norms. Such a social order would, of course, be totally invidious to the very freedoms we purport to be trying to bring the Afghans through the war we are waging. Regardless of developments, however, we must remember that Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans, not to America, and that every independent country should be free to make its own history.
However the politics shake out in Afghanistan, America and its NATO allies could undoubtedly help bend the curve of history there to more humane ends by spending their treasure not on war, but on no-strings-attached investments to meet human needs -- food, water, schools and infrastructure. Perhaps not immediately, but sooner than could ever be accomplished by a continuing cycle of military conflict, such investments could help transform Afghan history. With the help of opportunities and supports put in place by a generous and caring world, young Afghan men and women would for the first time be able to reject the fraudulent promise of apocalyptic glory, and pursue instead the sense of true social identity that can only be won through self-discovery, personal development, meaningful work, and the respect of family, friends and community.
Ending the War against al Qaeda, Too
For similar reasons, it seems to me we should also end our war on al Qaeda-trained and other terrorists in the Middle East. Their mission cannot be defeated militarily, since it is not only based on an unyielding determination to eject occupying infidels from Arab lands, but is made doubly intractable by deep-seated resentments of the West that will continue to attract adherents.
Ending our wars on the Taliban and al Qaeda would require, of course, an immediate revolutionary shift in our own perspective. We would have to perceive the leaders of these groups not as embodiments of evil, but as human beings like ourselves whose motivations, for good or bad, are deeply rooted in life experience. The repressive mindset and destructive behavior of militant jihadists can surely be explained in large part by the West's contemptuous exploitation of Muslim lands, carried out in cahoots with corrupt and venal Muslim governments. This reactionary history has undoubtedly diminished opportunities available to young Muslims to secure their place in society through normal channels of personal development. The resulting frustration and resentment have caused many to seek their social identity in a repressive sectarian belief system that justifies draconian acts of vengeance on those who have perpetrated, supported, or condoned what are considered to be unjust actions or indignities against Muslims or Islam.
In trying to understand the jihadist mindset, it is important to note that poverty, though widespread in Muslim -- especially Arab Muslim -- countries, is not itself the principal cause of the resentment felt by young Muslims, nor does it necessarily predict a turn to religious extremism or political violence. Osama bin Laden himself was of course both well-heeled and educated. What is always missing from the lives of such men, however, is an available pathway to a humanly meaningful place in society. That requires a stable and supportive civil society, providing opportunities for self-discovery, personal development, awareness of the needs of others, and the creative expression of one's abilities in socially useful work.
In stark contrast, the overriding tradition to which most Arab Muslim young men are exposed is a repressive faith in sanctioned power, centered in Allah, his Holy Book, church and state rulers, and, significantly, too, the male gender. Though lip service is sometimes paid in this tradition to the Quran's injunction to help the needy, its overall thrust leaves little psychological space -- even for the well-off -- for the hard work of planning and building a personal life that has social value.
In such a void, it is no surprise that bin Laden and others like him, all devoted to scriptural righteousness and the idea of justice by the sword, should seek their sense of social identity in an enterprise of Islamic triumphalism. In developing that project, they have had no trouble bringing into their fold a continuous availability of young foot soldiers who have themselves been put at loose ends not only by a power structure that limits personal development, but, in many cases also, by crushing poverty. Such recruits share the religious fundamentalism of their leaders, and hope, like them, to fulfill their need for a social identity in jihad. They are also attracted by the prospect of a job and paycheck that may not be available elsewhere. Given these circumstances, it seems evident that America's continued prosecution of a brutal high-tech war in Afghanistan, with all of its inevitable damage to infrastructure and death to civilians, will only serve to intensify Muslim resentments and the zeal for jihad among young Arabs. The result of that, even with the killing of bin Laden, will surely be to further expand the recruiting powers of al Qaeda.
America can, however, pursue a more creative course -- one that, in my own view, would better serve both its national security interests and its constructive influence in the world. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that there are no grounds for talking with terrorists, I believe we must recognize our common humanity with them, including mutual weaknesses of intolerance, insecurity, and domination of others, and show them the respect of hearing out their reasons for jihad.
We know from experience that expressions of bravado or epic ambitions, whether from individuals or political leaders, stem largely from existential anxiety and are often inversely proportional to the capacity to make good on them. Little should be made, I think, of notions that a small band of stateless terrorists actually aspires to a global caliphate or to bringing down the American Babylon in spite of its overwhelming military superiority.